Last Friday, an apparently rushed through motion by the governing PiS party in the country’s lower house of parliament, the Sejm, led to the adoption of a controversial new media law, a.k.a. ‘Lex TVN’, banning non-EEA countries from owning majority shares of media companies, despite this same motion being rejected by the upper house, the Senate, in August.
As the moniker makes clear, it is directed at the biggest independent TV station in Poland, TVN, which is not uncritical of the government, and majority owned by the US based Discovery Channel - even though the government has been at great pains to avoid the link, describing it as ‘just plugging a legal loophole’ and ‘aligning with media law in many other Member States’.
The European Commission and the majority of MEPs were not convinced, with the Parliament’s First Vice-President Roberta Metsola (MT, EPP) quoting a tweet by Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová:
Over the weekend, protests against the Polish government and in support of media freedom were held in several Polish cities, and many MEPs highlighted them on social media, like Renew Group vice-chair Katalin Cseh:
The Polish government’s move also deeply irritated the US administration which had been lobbying Warsaw not to drive out the biggest American investor in the country. The US Chargé d’Affaires at the embassy in Warsaw, B. Bix Aliu, tweeted:
Whether Poland’s president - not known usually for standing up against the government - will heed the call from Washington and veto the law remains to be seen, but recent developments are unlikely to help bridge this particular transatlantic rift.
On Monday, Associated Press (AP) published data analysis from Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto project, which showed that Pegasus spyware has been used on the smart phones of Polish opposition figures.
At the same time, pressure is growing against Pegasus across the Atlantic, after US diplomatic staff stationed in Uganda were revealed as victims of the spyware’s unprecedented observation facilities earlier this month.
Already in early November, Washington had put the software’s developer, the Israeli defense contractor NSO, on its “entity list”, restricting trade with it significantly, explaining that its tools have been used to “conduct transnational repression.”
The latest revelations concern the high-profile lawyer and former Deputy Prime Minister Roman Giertych, and prosecutor Ewa Wrzosek.
"I consider my surveillance with Pegasus as an illegal act on the part of state services."
Ewa Wrzosek, Polish prosecutor
While the latter was targeted this summer after having publicly critisised the government, the former was hacked at least 18 times in the last quarter of 2019, according to the Citizen Lab analysis.
At the time, he was representing former Prime Minister and President of the European Council Donald Tusk, now heading the largest opposition party. Former Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski (PL, EPP), now chair of Parliament’s delegation for relations with the US was also targeted.
Wrosek told TVN24 in an interview on Tuesday that she considers her surveillance with Pegasus as an “illegal act on the part of state services”, stressing that case did not only concern her privacy, but also the secrecy of her proceedings.
According to AP, a Polish state security spokesman would neither confirm nor deny whether the government ordered the hacks or is an NSO customer.
MEPs reacted with dismay to the Polish revelations, with Sophie in 't Veld (NL, Renew) commenting:
And German Greens/EFA Group’s Daniel Freund posted:
For their part, Sikorski and Tusk posted more sanguine comments in their native language, with the former addressing the government ministers responsible:
“Do you have court permits to use #Pegasus against prosecutor Wrzostek and attorney @GiertychRoman? Was the purchase of the system, which is considered a weapon, in accordance with the regulations, @WasikMaciej, @ZiobroPL, @Kaminski_M_? My advice is to keep your papers in order.”
And Donald Tusk referred to Greek mythology, and the sticky end that befell Bellerophon after attempting to ride the winged horse:
“Pegasus was supposed to take his rider to Mount Olympus, but Zeus knocked his visitor into the abyss and took over Pegasus. I explain - just in case - that this is one of the Greek myths, not a threat”.
Since Monday, Citizen Lab has revealed more Pegasus related analysis, concerning state sponsored surveillance of the widow of murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Kashoggi, who was targeted during the months leading to her husband’s gruesome assassination in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.